THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ASTRONOMY AND FAITH IN AN INTERVIEW WITH FATHER FUNES, DIRECTOR OF THE VATICAN OBSERVATORY (L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO) -- MAY 14, 2008
The extraterrestrial is my brother
“Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.” Cites Dante—the famous verse that closes the last canto of The Inferno—to describe astronomy’s mission. This is above all “giving back to men the just dimension of a small and fragile creature before the incommensurable scenario of billions and billions of galaxies.” And then we discover that we are not the only beings to inhabit the Universe? The hypothesis does not unsettle it much more so. It is possible to believe in God and in extraterrestrials. The existence of other worlds and other life, even more evolved than ours, can be accepted without this interfering in the discussion the faith of creation, the incarnation, the redemption. Words of an astronomer and of a priest. Words of José Gabriel Funes, Director of the Vatican Observatory. Argentinian, 45 years old, Jesuit, from August 2006, Father Funes has the keys to the historical Pontifical Palace of Castel Gandolfo, which Pius XI gave to the Vatican Observatory in 1935. Around one year he gave it back, to receive that of the Basilian monastery situated on the border between the Pontifical Villa and Albano, where the observatory’s study, laboratories and libraries were moved. It brings together courtly and serene styles that from soft detachment of earthly things to whom is used to having eyes turned heavenward. A little bit of a philosopher and a little bit of a researcher like all astronomers. Contemplating the sky is for him the most authentic human act that can be done. Because—he explains to “L’Osservatore Romano”—it enlarges our heart and helps us to get out of so many hells that humanity has created on the earth: violence, war, poverty, oppression.”
LOR: How did the Church’s and Popes’ interest in astronomy come to be?
FUNES: The origins can be traced back to Gregory XIII, who was the artifice of the calendar reform in 1582. Father Cristoforo Clavio, Jesuit of the Collegio Romano, was part of the commission that studied this reform. Between 1700 and 1800, three observatories sprung up by papal initiative. Then in 1891, in a moment of conflict between the church world and the scientific world, Pope Leo XIII wanted to found, or better re-found, the Vatican Observatory. He did it precisely to show that the Church was not against science, but promoted a “true and solid” science, after his own words. The Observatory was therefore born of an essentially apologetic scope, but with the years became part of the dialogue of the Church with the world.
LOR: Does the study of the laws of the Cosmos bring us closer to or farther away from God?
FUNES: Astronomy has a deep human value. It is a science that opens the heart and the mind. It helps us to put our life, our hopes and our problems into right perspective. In this sense—and here I speak as a priest and as a Jesuit—it is also a huge apostolic tool that can bring one closer to God.
LOR: Give us some examples.
FUNES: Sufficient to remember that about thirty craters of the moon are named after ancient Jesuit astronomers. And that a solar system asteroid has been named after my predecessor to the Observatory, Father George Coyne. One could also recall the importance of contributions such as those of Father O’Connell to the individualization of the “green ray” or of Brother Consolmagno to the declassification of Pluto. It goes without saying the work of Father Corbally—vice president of our astronomical center in Tuscon—who has worked with a NASA team on the recent discovery of residual asteroids in the formation of binary star systems.
LOR: Can the Church’s interest in the study of the universe be explained by the fact that astronomy is the only science that has to do with the infinite and therefore with God?
FUNES: To be precise, the universe is not infinite. It is very big, but finite, because it has an age: about 14 billion years, given our most recent findings. And if it has an age, this means that it also has a limit in space. The universe was born in a determined moment and from then is continually expanding.
LOR: From what has it originated?
FUNES: From my perspective, the Big Bang remains the best explanation of the universe’s origin that we have at this point from a scientific standpoint.
LOR: And from there, what happened?
FUNES: For 300,000 years, matter, energy and light remained in a sort of blend. The universe was opaque. Then they were separated. Given that now we live in a transparent universe, we can see light: that of the furthest galaxies, for example, that arrives to us after 11 or 12 billion years. One only has to remember that light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second. And this very limit proves to us that today’s observable universe is not infinite.
LOR: Does the Big Bang theory support or contradict the vision of faith based on the biblical creation account?
FUNES: As an astronomer, I continue to believe that God is the creator of the universe and that we are not the product of chance, but children of a good father, who has a task of love for us. The Bible is not fundamentally a science book. As Dei Verbum emphasizes, it is the book of God’s word addressed to us men. It is a love letter that God wrote to his people, in a language that dates back two or three thousand years. Obviously, at the time, the concept Big Bang was completely strange. Therefore, scientific answers cannot be found in the Bible. In the same way, we do not know if in the more or less near future the Big Bang theory will be surpassed by a more comprehensive explanation of the origin of the universe. Currently, it is the best and is not in contradiction with faith. It is reasonable.
LOR: But Genesis speaks of the earth, of animals, of man and of woman. Does this exclude the possibility of the existence of other worlds or living beings in the universe?
FUNES: From my judgment this possibility exists. Astronomers hold that the universe was formed by 100 billion galaxies, each of them is composed of 100 billion stars. Many of these, or almost all, could have some planets. How could it not be left out that life developed elsewhere? There is a branch of astronomy, astrobiology that precisely studies this aspect and has made much progress in recent years. Examining the light spectrums that come from stars and planets, soon it will be possible to single out elements of their atmosphere—the so-called biomakers—and understand if conditions exist for the birth and development of life. For the rest, life forms could exist in theory, even without oxygen or hydrogen.
LOR: Are we referring also to similar beings to us or more evolved ones?
FUNES: It is possible. Until now we have had no proof. But certainly in a universe so big this hypothesis cannot be excluded.
LOR: And this would not be a problem for our faith?
FUNES: I believe no. As a multiplicity of creatures exist on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. This does not contrast with our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God. To say it with Saint Francis, if we consider earthly creatures as “brother” and “sister,” why cannot we also speak of an “extraterrestrial brother?” It would therefore be a part of creation.
LOR: And what about redemption?
FUNES: We borrow the gospel image of the lost sheep. The pastor leaves the 99 in the herd for go look for the one that is lost. We think that in this universe there can be 100 sheep, corresponding to diverse forms of creatures. We that belong to the human race could be precisely the lost sheep, sinners who have need of a pastor. God was made man in Jesus to save us. In this way, if other intelligent beings existed, it is not said that they would have need of redemption. They could remain in full friendship with their Creator.
LOR: I insist: if they were sinners, would redemption also be possible for them?
FUNES: Jesus has been incarnated once, for everyone. The incarnation is an unique and unrepeatable event. I am therefore sure that they, in some way, would have the possibility to enjoy God’s mercy, as it has been for us men.
LOR: Next year, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth will be celebrated and the Church returns to confront itself with evolution. Could astronomy offer a contribution to this conflict?
FUNES: As an astronomer I can say from observations of stars of galaxies there emerges a clear evolutive process. This is a scientific fact. Here I also do not see a contradiction between that which we can learn from evolution—providing it does not become an absolute ideology—and our own faith in God. There exist fundamental truths that therefore do not change: God is the creator, there is meaning to creation, we are not children of chance.
LOR: From these foundations, is a dialogue possible with men of science?
FUNES: I would say it is necessary. Faith and science are not irreconcilable. John Paul II said and Benedict XVI has repeated it: faith and reason are the two wings with which the human spirit rises. There is no contradiction between that which we know by means of faith and that which we learn from science. There can be tensions or conflicts, but we should not be afraid. The Church should not fear science and its discoveries.
LOR: As on the contrary happened with Galileo.
FUNES: That was certainly a case which has marked the history of the ecclesial community and of the scientific community. It is useless to negate that the conflict never was. And perhaps in the future there will be similar ones. But I think the moment has arrived to turn the page and look somewhat to the future. This incident has left its wounds. There have been misunderstandings. The Church in some way has recognized her errors. Perhaps she could have done better. But now is the time to heal these wounds. And this can be realized in a context of serene dialogue of collaboration. People need science and faith to help each other in turn, but without betraying the clarity and honesty of their respective positions.
LOR: But then why is this collaboration so difficult today?
FUNES: I believe that one of the problems in the relationship between science and faith is ignorance. On one side, scientists should learn to correctly read the Bible and to understand the truths of our faith. On the other, theologians and Churchmen should get up to date on scientific progress to be able to give efficacious responses to questions that these continually pose. Unfortunately, even in schools and parishes a way to help integrate faith and science is lacking. Catholics often remain stuck at the knowledge of when the catechism was prepared. I believe that this is a true and characteristic challenge from a pastoral point of view.
LOR: In this sense what can the Observatory do?
FUNES: John XXIII said that our mission should be that of explaining the Church to astronomers and astronomy to the Church. We are like a bridge, a small bridge, between the world of science and the Church. Along this bridge, there is one who goes in one direction and one who goes in the other. As Benedict XVI has recommended to us Jesuits in occasion of the last general congregation, we should be men on the cutting edge. I believe the Observatory has this mission: being on the frontier between the world of science and the world of faith, to give testimony that it is possible to believe in God and to be good scientists.